My mother likes to send me pictures of food.
Afternoon, evening and late at night, I’ll check my phone and there’ll be another text or three from her. Sometimes, it’s just a dish she’s ordered at a restaurant — Korean cold noodles, chicken tamales, a fried onion artfully peeled into a flower — but usually it’s her home cooking. Stir-fried green peppers with pork. Soy sauce beef with Napa cabbage. Fried rice with leeks and Chinese sausage.
Of course, these are the ones I can describe in English. The truth is, there are many other dishes she sends me whose names are untranslatable. Just the other day, my friend looked over my shoulder and pointed at one of the photographs my mother sent me, a platter of rou bing right from the pan, cut into neat quarters, the dough brown and flaky.
“What’s that?” he asked.
I paused for a long time.
“It’s — well, it’s like a meat pancake,” I finally settled. “I mean — never mind.”
A meat pancake.
I think back on it now, and it’s laughable, how stupid, how insufficient, how not rou bing those words are. Yet, the funny thing is, there’s this instinct nagging at me even now, this urge to amend, to revise: it’s more like a calzone, really, the crust on the outside, the stuffing on the inside — no, this too is completely wrong. These comparisons are completely wrong. I don’t know how to say it, what a rou bing is in English, but —
I want you to understand.
I want you to understand that when my mother sent me that picture, I thought about narrow alleyways in Beijing, crowded little shops that fit only three, four tables at best, half-naked men hunched over plates of steaming food and sweating bottles of cheap beer, the sizzle of grease and the sound of the chef slapping dough against his palm, his hands, his shirt, his face covered in white dust — the air is so hot inside, it makes everything swoon.
I want you to understand that when my mother sent me that picture, I thought about my grandparents’ old apartment, fifth story, just a living room, bedroom and kitchen. I’m sitting in a foldable chair and kicking my legs back and forth, I’m 9 or 10 or 12, and the fan is on and blowing hair into my eyes, my grandmother is mixing the filling for the rou bing with chopsticks, the ground meat and the scallions, she pours in soy sauce and scatters in wei jing, her hands are deft and quick and capable — this is her original recipe, after all.
Also, I want you to understand this last image: college-aged now, drumming my fingers against the kitchen countertop, waiting, I watch my mother sprinkle dough on her cutting board, the ingredients for the next batch already lined up in front of her in small bowls, ginger, jiu cai, pork, she turns around and lifts the lid from the pan, steam rises up, there’s the pop of oil and a smell rich and salty, she takes her spatula and lifts the rou bing up, slides it onto a plate. Then, there’s the lifting of a knife, the crunch of crust giving way to metal, metal scraping against ceramic, and she offers one to me. It tastes like home.
These unsolicited photographs are more than just text messages and pixels and space on my iPhone. These feelings and memories that well up are sentimental, sentimental sometimes to the point of pain. It’s past midnight, and I find myself scrolling through them, staring at them, imagining the taste of all of these foods upon my tongue, salty or sweet or savory or light or just — good.
I complain to her, once in a while.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I’ll say in Mandarin, only half-joking. “Don’t you know how hungry I get?”
“You can eat them when you come home,” she says.
I’m starting to think, then, that my mother has ulterior motives in sending me all of these pictures. It’s a bit conspiratorial, but maybe it’s a not-so-subtle reminder, something along the lines of: You’re growing up, and you have vegan chicken now in the dining halls, and you can eat so many things now that I don’t know how to make, like that one time you went out and you had lobster bisque and seafood paella and caramel flan — but remember this:
Rou bing, passed down. You were 5 and 11 and 16 and now almost 20, but remember? It still tastes the same, so come home.
Contact Alice Zhao at email@example.com .